Five wildfire deaths highlight vulnerability of isolated seniors in disasters
Some were pulled from the fire zone by relatives or neighbors, with or without their wheelchairs. At least a handful made the bumpy ride out in the back of a pickup through heavy smoke and fire-blackened debris — thanks to a former paramedic who breached the blockades.
They arrived at area shelters with oxygen tanks, without their medications, anxious and in some cases disoriented. Then there were the ones who stayed behind —intentionally or not.
Of the three deaths reported so far in Lake County’s devastating Valley fire, all were senior citizens, among them 72-year-old Barbara McWilliams, who suffered from advanced multiple sclerosis. Two other men who are believed to have died were in their late 60s.
The aging are woven into the fabric of Lake County, where 18% of residents have passed their 65th birthdays, versus 11% for the entire state. Some have flocked here to retire, drawn to the independent streak that favors community over government; others have aged in place, their grown children gone in search of better job opportunities.
And though it was unclear in the disaster’s aftermath how many were living in the evacuation zone, officials said about 2,300 county residents rely on state-funded in-home care or delivered meals.
In the Rocky and Jerusalem fires, which burned to the north and northeast of the Valley fire in August and July, staff of the county Office of Adult Services were able to contact those living in “advisory evacuation zones” and offer transportation to shelters, program manager Todd Metcalf said.
But the Sept. 12 blaze “moved too quickly for us to perform outreach as we normally do,” Metcalf said.
Lori Tourville, executive director of the Middletown Senior Center, a daytime hub for meals and social activities that survived the blaze, was evacuated from her Hidden Valley Lake home, then scrambled on social media and through word of mouth from a Ukiah motel to track down clients who may have stayed behind.
“I’m worried about my homebound seniors,” she said. “They all have land lines and so they can’t be checked on.”
Similar concerns were playing out in Calaveras County, which tops the state for the percentage of elderly and where authorities confirmed this week that the two people killed by the Butte fire were senior citizens.
In Lake County, Sheriff Brian Martin said the fire spread “too violently and too quickly” for officials to get to everybody — or even warn them all.
Gail Barrett, 68, who is disabled with debilitating nerve pain, said she received an “advisory call” about evacuation through the reverse 911 system. But before any mandatory evacuation order came through, the power cut out.
A siren that used to sound at a volunteer fire station down the road no longer does. A neighbor helped her pack and, after he helped his own wife, who uses a wheelchair, into their car, Barrett followed them in white-knuckled terror as they turned first toward the fire and then reversed course, finally making it to Kelseyville.
“I was scared to death,” she said. “I hadn’t driven at night in 13 years.”
Deputies went door to door in some areas and called out orders on a mobile public address system, but not everywhere.
A transcript of the early 911 calls tells the tale: An elderly subject with dementia needing evacuation; an elderly female with 18-month-old child needing evacuation; two elderly subjects needing evacuation; an elderly bed-ridden female needing evacuation.
As flames hit Middletown after dark, firefighters threatened to carry out Winnie Pugh, 85, against her will.
“I said, ‘Like hell!’” she recalled Thursday, wearing donated pajama pants decorated with reindeer and Santas at the Red Cross shelter in Calistoga and hunched in a borrowed wheelchair that felt like “sitting on wood.” (Her electric chair, along with a new electric scooter, melted in the flames.)
Pugh finally agreed to go with her sons when the first board on the house her parents had bought — where her oldest child was born and one of the others died — fell to the ground. She spent four days without medications, which she takes for — “you name it, I got it ... for arthritis, a blood problem, something to sleep, something to wake up” — and has not yet gotten over the shock “of seeing what’s left of my house” in a media photo.
Some chose to stick it out.
Doug Troyer, 68, a retired businessman from San Mateo, wanted to guard his vintage cars — two Pontiac GTOs, a Corvette, and a 1965 Shelby Cobra, each emblazoned with a license plate reading COBBMTN, 1-4.
The blaze raged around his Fox Drive neighborhood but did not touch his block. On Thursday, he was washing his underwear in a bucket with a stick — “1800s-style.” Tucked in a front pants pocket was a .44 magnum with a cobra painted on its custom grip.
“I wasn’t supposed to be here, but as long as I was on my property they couldn’t make me leave,” said Troyer, who is well-stocked in the event of global economic collapse and wanted to protect his five cats: Blackie, Mommy, Bandit, Little Bit and Bergmeister.
But others were stuck and as the fire made its crazy dash, law enforcement and firefighting resources were stretched so thin that those seeking help for trapped loved ones were told by dispatchers they would have to wait.
Kristy Ornellas, 28, a former paramedic with relatives all over Cobb Mountain, picked up the slack. In her pickup truck, she edged past roadblocks at 9 a.m. Sunday on back roads and headed into the chaos, hooking up with other former volunteer medics.
In multiple trips, she evacuated a man in his 70s in a hospital bed on oxygen; two women on walkers in their 70s without vehicles, and a woman and man in their 60s, each in wheelchairs.
Her sixth attempted rescue was of McWilliams, but debris blocked the driveway to the secluded home. McWilliams, a retired special education teacher, may have already died. Her caretaker, Jennifer Hittson, left her alone at 3 p.m.
On Saturday, puffs of smoke seemed so sparse that Hittson believed they were coming from the Butte fire dozens of miles to the east. Hittson says her desperate calls later in the evening and the following morning to sheriff’s and fire officials on McWilliams’ behalf were not heeded, though the Sheriff’s Department said in a statement that deputies tried to access the area shortly after 7:30 p.m. but were blocked by flames.
“The smoke was unbearable. I didn’t see one fire crew,” said Ornellas, who believes more volunteers should be harnessed for rescue work. “Especially in the rural counties, we are elderly here ... there has to be more access.”
FOR THE RECORD: A previous version of this article inadvertently omitted a sentence, giving the impression that five bodies had been found in the Valley fire area. The number of dead there stands at three. Five was the number of reported missing, which has since been raised to six.
On Thursday, Martin told a gathering at the massive evacuation shelter at the Napa County Fairgrounds that he anticipates more bodies will be found. The department has been focusing on those who have reported loved ones missing.
That number stood at five Friday afternoon. But Undersheriff Chris Macedo said he hopes to collaborate with the local Area Agency on Aging and Adult Services to identify others who may be vulnerable.
The agency is mandated under federal law and state law to assist the people it serves as well as emergency responders during disasters, and is housed at the county social services department.
“We are concerned that there may be people out there without family, friends or co-workers,” he said.
Betsy Cawn, 71, a Lake County advocate for senior support services, says the lists of the homebound and other vulnerable clients should have been in the hands of the Sheriff’s Department immediately. She said she has been pressing health and social services officials to better coordinate with the department “for years.”
“They have neglected these people to a fare-thee-well,” Cawn said.
In an email, Lake County Social Services Director Carol Huchingson said her department meets all requirements.
As she scrambled to get shelters running and plan for a drawn out recovery effort, she added: “During my 20-plus years here, Lake County has not experienced a disaster of this magnitude.”
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